Thanks to @cpip, @Zimmerwald1915 and @RGB for their help.

A Spreading Flame​

Update #1
"You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees."- Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1914

In 1917, after three years of total war, Europe was on the brink of exhaustion. The World War had sucked money, men, and effort from every nation, even those that were formerly neutral. Commerce had been stifled on the high seas by raiders, mines, and blockades. Land traffic fared little better as armies blocked trade routes and nations nationalized railways for the war effort. Millions had been killed and millions more maimed or wounded. New terrifying weapons had been unleashed, and Western civilization reeled from the sheer madness of the unending war.

This is not to say the war had been the same in all places. In the East, the war had been mobile, far-ranging, with armies sweeping back and forth across the endless plains of Poland, Ukraine and Russia itself. The land had been devastated by the see-saw battles as Tsarist and Imperial German forces clashed in titanic battles that shaped the fate of whole empires. Finally though, by the spring of 1917, Russia had collapsed into political turmoil and revolt. The Czar had fled, leaving Russia to suffer paroxysms of civil war.

And old and battered Czar Nicholas II, just before fleeing Russia.

The harsh treaty of Bialystok, which had ended the Eastern conflict, had been everything Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire could have hoped for. Huge swaths of the Russian Empire, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, had been cut away to form German puppets. The lost territory was some of the richest in the former empire, totaling one quarter of the population and nine-tenths of the coal mines.

Six billion marks of reparations were also included, not to mention the vast resources looted by German armies. Russia, divided and weak, was unable to resist these terms- no matter how harsh. Knocking Russia out of the war had shifted the entire balance of power. With it, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was safe to focus on the much lesser threat of Italy, the Ottomans free of the looming northern giant, and Germany itself free to turn all of its resources to the West.

The war in the West had been very different. After a few months of a battle of movement, the Western Front had frozen into tangled lines of trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns. Throughout 1915 and 1916, the Allies had thrown huge attacks against the German lines, gaining mere yards for thousands dead. Still, despite fighting on the defensive, Germany had been bled white by the gigantic battles. The entire nation, still under a British blockade, was staggering politically and economically. The gains from the Eastern conquests would take months- maybe years- to fully actualize, but Germany would never last that long. Something needed to be done now to break the endless stalemate in the West, and to bring the Allies to the peace table.

So it was that Operation Reichsschlacht was conceived. This would be the final blow to win the war. Masterminded by brilliant but politically damaged General Ludendorff, the operation was made up of four major offensives: Frederick, Scharnhorst, Yorck, and Schlieffen. The attacking armies would be created of the divisions returning from the Eastern Front, as they were the last source of men in Germany.


Erich Ludendorff, the far-right mastermind of victory in the East.

The attacks were carefully planned throughout the late winter and early spring of 1917. Troops were trained in tactics designed to break the morass of the trench. Named Shock Troopers, these elite units were taught how to infiltrate enemy defenses, flow around the toughest, and punch through weak holes. Only later, after the Storm troops cut them off, would these strong points be taken down by regular infantry. These units were also given the best equipment available, from airplanes to machine guns to radios. The rest of the line was drained to supply these troops; Germany’s last and best hope.

The geographic point for Reichsschlacht, near the French town of Peronne, was chosen carefully as well. The main goals hoped to be achieved were three-fold. First, this is where the British and French met, providing a natural “hinge” to be attacked, a weak point to be exploited. Secondly, it provided a secondary target of Amiens, a major rail junction for the Allies. Taking it would severely endanger Allied troops west of the city, making supply difficult. Thirdly, and most grandly, Reichsschlacht was to slice west and north, toward the Channel ports. By cutting off or even threatening them, the entire British position might collapse, leading to decisive battles like those in the East. Battles that Germany could win, rather than the endless war of attrition that had gone on for years.

All of this filled Ludendorff's mind as he began the final preparations for the campaign. Battle-tested in the East, he was no stranger to the vast logistical struggles of a major military operation. The sheer weight of the entire war on his shoulders was great, and many observers noted the general wishing Paul von Hindenburg, his famed ally and colleague, was here to help him plan. But Hindenburg was dead, killed in a train accident early in 1915. Many suggested if he had lived, the war would already have been won.

Regardless of the mind behind the plan, it was delayed after the Allies massive attacks in the spring. Concerned at the fall of Russia, the French under General Magin had thrown massive assaults at the German line. Despite minor successes, Ludendorff hoarded his units dedicated for Reichsschlacht. He would not squander them in mere defense. As events soon showed, he was correct, as the hastily conceived Spring Offensive soon ended in disaster, with rivers of blood to show for little gain. Despite the delay, it only made the coming German attack more likely to succeed.

Finally the time came, mid-summer and Ludendorff's plans were complete, men and material in position for the final, all-out struggle. The Kaiser himself formally gave the order in Berlin, which was relayed to the front lines.

Before dawn, the German guns erupted in one of the great bombardments of the war. Winston Churchill, British Minister of Munitions, happened to be inspecting front-line troops during the salvoe. He reported, “There rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear”. The barrage, complete with poison gas, went on for hours. Then, without warning ,the guns stopped, and whistles blews. Men poured out of trenches, dodging among shell holes and rusty wire. Reichsschlacht had begun.

The troops that even now came pouring over the top, were more fortunate than even Ludendorff hoped. The French troops holding the sectors being assaulted were mainly those “resting” from the spring attacks. Battered, at partial strength, and with low morale , several of them had actually mutinied when faced with the prospect of mass frontal attacks. It was these same weary men that the long-prepared German tidal wave fell upon with such fury.


German Shock Troops. Note the use of grenades and small squads.

The initial German onslaught shattered the front lines, and the already worn French troops began giving way. The weather, warm and clear, aided the French, and they retreated in decent order, trying to maintain a semblance of a line. Still, it was difficult as the Germans, with Storm Troops as the vanguard kept slicing behind each line as it was thrown up.

At the other end, the British reeled under the sudden blow as well. Also caught totally by surprise, the British struggled to hold back the assault. The heavy German bombardment had cut lines of communications, as well as destroying several supply dumps. This was enough for the Germans to make several breakthroughs. Carefully, the British retreated to prepared positions, and actually inflicted more losses than they received. Frederick, the initial assault to crack the formidable trench lines had succeeded, but bloodily. It would be to the next assaults that would prove if the cost would led to victory or defeat.

However, at the higher levels, fears and panic ran rampant that the Germans were going to break through, backed by a million men from the Eastern Front. In response Magin, still under heavy political pressure from his failed spring offensives, ordered huge counterattacks to the exposed German positions from the south. As the first day ended, these massive troop movements put enormous pressure on the Germans, but they also removed the local supply of reinforcements and reserve.

On the second day, the weather changed to heavy clouds and fog, which helped the Germans conceal their movements as they continued the assault where they could. In the south the French counter-attacks, rushed and confused, did little good except to stretch supply lines.

In the north, the British continued to fall back, and the fighting grew confused among the rugged landscape and foggy valleys. German infiltrators were everywhere, making rumors spread among the Allied troops. Order began to break down among both defenders and attackers, but the Germans kept pushing onward and several British salients were captured or cut off.

British troops fall back under German hammer blows.

On the third day, still blessed by fog and rain, the Germans pushed harder, finally driving apart the French and British armies. The British forces, still retreating but finding one flank in the air, began to panic and withdraw faster, blowing bridges as they went. Lacking a strategic reserve, the French also found themselves flanked and withdrew, only making the gap wider.

This pattern continued over the next few days as the German drove on Amiens and Arras, pushing apart the Allied armies. Allied supply dumps were looted, fueling the German armies. Allied lines of communication and supply were cut off, making counter-attacks confused masses. While it was not quite the breakthrough dreamed of for years, it was more fluid and mobile fighting than seen on the Western front since 1914.

Finally after a week and half of fighting, Arras had fallen and German troops had crossed the Noye River. Amiens lay in sight, a critical juncture for the British forces, and what was left of the ‘hinge’ between the two. It had to be held. Desperate, several Australian and New Zealand units even attempted night attacks to force the Germans back. Due to bad luck however, the Germans got wind of the attacks and stalled them, killing thousands of the attacking troops.

Three days later Amiens fell, and with it the massive Allied depots in the city. The German troops rushed to build defenses as the Allies, now having moved huge numbers of troops in the area, counter-attacked on all sides. The tables now turned, the tired and hungry Germans dug in, living off captured rations. Unlike the German assault though, the Allied attacks were poorly planned and hastily implemented. While they drove back the Germans in some sectors, the built up area around Amiens proved impossible to push through. It remained in German hands. Frederick had succeeded, and now the rest of Reichsschlacht could proceed.


The fate of Amiens after the fighting.

Over the next few months, the next two assaults were launched, Operations Scharnhorst and Yorck. Scharnhorst was directed farther south, to draw troops away from the Channel ports, and was aimed at a gap between two French armies. While it made little progress, it did draw French armies away. Yorck was more bold, aimed at Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk. The victory at Aimens had drawn thousands of British troops, making this stroke possible.

For a month both attacks blazed, and hundreds of thousands were killed in this ferocious bout of violence. In the north, the British, confused and out of place, were driven back for miles over broken terrain, leftover from the Battle of Ypres. Forced back nearly to the Channel itself, the British forces were driven even farther from the main French force, making cooperative action impossible..

Then came the final blow, Schieffelin, in October 1917. It was a massive push north from the Amiens salient , to link with the gains made in the Yorck attacks. Not only would this massively reinforce the German line, it would place the main bodies of the two Allied armies miles apart, with no hope for action in concert. It would also sweep away miles of Allied trench without needing to assault it head-on. With this attack, Germany could undo years of stagnation on the Western Front.

As it was launched, the Allies were reeling. They watched, stunned, as the German forces again went on the offensive, storming trench after trench, taking strongpoint after strongpoint. Weary after years of war, they were astonished at the seemingly endless well of German supplies, troops, and morale.

They had no idea that this attack had drained German manpower to the utter limit, with other sectors being bled dry, no that the German economy was crumbling under the double blows of the war and the British blockade. Even at home, socialist groups were agitating for an honorable peace to this seemingly endless war. Germany, far more than the Allies, stood on the very edge of destruction and catastrophe.


The German homefront, with factories increasingly staffed by women to make up for a depleted male labor pool.

But Britain and France had no way of knowing this. All they saw was a Germany smashing Allied lines, apparently at will. Then the Americans, headed by Woodrow Wilson, along with the offices of the Pope, offered to meditate a “worthy and just” peace. The American president held not just the carrot of peace, but also waved the stick of loan repayments. Faced with war-weary populaces, rising deficits and now perhaps the total collapse of the Western Front, the Allies had no choice but to come to the peace table. Germany, in even worse straits also agreed, and for the first time since 1914, there was the glimmer of peace in Europe.
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